Night came as it is wont to do: a thief with its wide black bag, spilling stars from east to west, leaving only a few thing alabaster lines lingering on the trail of the sun. Artemisia sat on a wide and comfortable chair at the edge of the roof garden. Her shop was closed down for the night, and she did not want to leave it for another. For the time being, she’d just rest and think about Dulcamara’s words.
Might even get a little help. She lifted a hand and she pulled into her hand a handful of fresh marijuana leaves from her closest plant, rolling them into a joint which she set against her lips and lit up with a twinge of her Light.
The tip of the joint burned white, then red, unfurling in a whiff of whitish smoke, dancing in the air with its mute choreography. She inhaled the smoke – it tasted a bit like smoke and laurel oak, but her taste buds, by now, could be playing tricks on her. How long had it been since she did not eat steak? She couldn’t even remember if she had cooked it or pulled it raw from the hide of some beast.
Her memories swam in a too-wide sea, and sometimes they couldn’t find their way home. Plunging into the depths of that sea, even the earliest images came back dulled, twisted. Memories from the Long Winter, back when grinding ice gnawed at the hinds of the mountains and the Children of Men were few and scattered.
Pulling back up, she reached her first clear memory on a hot summer day of about three thousand years before, back when the area she now lived in was inhabited by refugees from Levant, the Rasena people with their dark skin and curly hair and beautiful young maidens. Just as gorgeous as easily-drained.
Back then she’d been ravenous. Couldn’t even write it off as young age, as she was already eight thousand years old… more or less. Atropa did mellow out far sooner than her…
She held smoke inside her for the whole time it took a plane to leave a blinking streak on the sky above San Marino. When she let it out, it fell down her blouse, heavy and thick. It really did feel a bit like breathing. As far as she could imagine.
The ribbons of white smoke tickled against her naked feet. She had taken her clogs off, if only to feel the comfortable touch of terracotta on her skin. It helped to calm her mind.
Thirteenth Germination, Dulcamara had mocked her. And no Sabbath for her, while the best and most powerful Witches in the entire Dominion sat at the Table Twenty directing the course of their future.
Let her have her little victories, let her go back to Sicily and rot in her tiny monster shop. Just as well. She’d still prefer if Dulcamara did not put her nose in the affairs of others (or any least not as often), especially if that involved her Familiar.
She lit the joint once more with another twinge of her Light, taking in a second long whiff. She stood up, walking around the tall bushes and touching their precious leaves, brushing her nails all over their flowers. Roses, hawthorne, marigold… she lingered on a small vase filled with jimsonweed.
Some of her plants grew thick and low, tickling her calves with their roots, as if they could harm her, cut her skin. Others rose in curls towards the sky, their branches wrapping up in a mute prayer.
Artemisia let out another bout of smoke and reached the iron rail. Smoke fell down the wall and onto the street. She followed it with her green eyes – the tiny cloud widened and withered down the streets, alleys and corners, down the profiles of the houses lingering against the rock spurs. Wind changed and brought her the echoes of second-rate cuisine and industrial additives, cheap oil and fossil smoke rising from the world of the Children of Men, enjoying the summer night as if it belonged to them.
A smile pulled the right corner of her lips: wasn’t it just as she told Adele? Ignorance truly was a form of bliss. For the Children of Men, and considering the Sabbath she was not invited to, for her as well. Let the Table Twenty deal with it. She might miss chatting with Datura, but that was pretty much it.
Who knew if Adele was having fun? Surely more fun than her: she looked down, reaching for the golden cord that connected her to her Familiar. She couldn’t see it as hundreds of meters separated her, but she could perceive her: sitting at a table, smiling and joking with the rest of the species she used to belong to.
She had it for three years and Adele was remarkably well-preserved: obedient, of course, but still able to take decisions on her own, think and express herself. She might last long… longer than her joint, in fact. She took a third whiff.
She’d been in luck. Adele seemed to be made of stern stuff. She might last her a whole few more years, if she did not dry her out too soon.
A chuckle made her joint wobble against her lips. Truly, Datura was rubbing off on her if she was this worried about losing a Familiar. Maybe Dulcamara was right: she was getting weak and sentimental in her older age. Or maybe Datura was just ahead of the curve… maybe every ancient Witch turned into weak-willed saps holding onto their Familiars for a mockery of actual companionship.
She lit the joint once again, about to take in another whiff.
But she only took in air.
At the end of the half-consumed joint, the flame was there, but it was motionless, frozen as if in a photography. Even the smoke coming at its tail was paralyzed.
Oh no, was the thought that crossed her mind and then pierced her heart in a bout of fear, leaving just about enough time to fall back on her knees and cover her ears as the night groaned like creaking glass.
Her bones rattled, her teeth grinding against each other as if they were trying to fall off her jaw. Her sight swam and it turned dark at the corners. She fell on her side.
The night kept shrieking. Something was coming up next to her, and she knew who, but…
It was like that time… that time they had thrown her at the bottom of that lake, golden chains draining her Light, and water pressure invading her lungs, prying her insides open, turning her into a heavy and cold load that could only seep deeper into the darkness…
A drop of golden ichor rolled down her nose and onto her lip.
The night let out one final cry and it stopped.
The pressure as well, rolling on her side and sitting on her elbows, trembling from the shock as she slowly came back to her former state, like a bent blade of grass retrieving its shape. She cleaned the ichor off her skin, leaving a streak of gold on her upper lip.
“I am mortified,” said the voice of a young girl. It pierced her ears and rumbled inside her skull, as if it came directly from the springs of her own Light. “I did have a bit of a problem containing myself. I am not used to the outside.”
Artemisia kneaded her face, slowly standing up. The one who talked looked like a fifteen, maybe sixteen-years-old girl, covered from head to toe in the finest brocade, hinting at her slender limbs; her filigree-thin fingers entwined on her slight chest, her long hair dancing behind her like a jellyfish, without care for the direction of the wind. Like a spiderweb halo, trapping moonlight. Her eyes, two deep wells that made her head swam and feel like she was tripping over as she met her gaze, regarded her. Her platinum lips curled in a sheepish smile.
“Good evening, Artemisia. I came without warning, and I apologize. It was not my intention to bother you.”
Artemisia cleaned off the remains of her ichor spilling down her nose.
She was fine. She was fine.
This was her Stravaganza, she was a fine Witch of eleven thousand years old, and she could deal with sudden entrances. She was a professional.
“No bothering me at all,” she lied. Trying to play it off as confidence, she lazily leaned against the rail. “How can I help you, Atropa?”